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Elaine Showalter

Elaine Showalter

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Elaine Showalter is an American
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 literary critic
Literary criticism
Literary criticism is the study, evaluation, and interpretation of literature. Modern literary criticism is often informed by literary theory, which is the philosophical discussion of its methods and goals...

, feminist, and writer on cultural and social issues. She is one of the founders of feminist literary criticism in United States academia
Academia is the community of students and scholars engaged in higher education and research.-Etymology:The word comes from the akademeia in ancient Greece. Outside the city walls of Athens, the gymnasium was made famous by Plato as a center of learning...

, developing the concept and practice of gynocritics
Gynocriticism is the historical study of women writers as a distinct literary tradition. Elaine Showalter coined this term in her essay "Toward a Feminist Poetics." It refers to a criticism that constructs "a female framework for the analysis of women's literature, to develop new models based on...


She is well known and respected in both academic and popular cultural fields. She has written and edited numerous books and articles focused on a variety of subjects, from feminist literary criticism
Feminist literary criticism
Feminist literary criticism is literary criticism informed by feminist theory, or by the politics of feminism more broadly. Its history has been broad and varied, from classic works of nineteenth-century women authors such as George Eliot and Margaret Fuller to cutting-edge theoretical work in...

 to fashion, sometimes sparking widespread controversy, especially with her work on illnesses. Showalter has been a television critic for People
People (magazine)
In 1998, the magazine introduced a version targeted at teens called Teen People. However, on July 27, 2006, the company announced it would shut down publication of Teen People immediately. The last issue to be released was scheduled for September 2006. Subscribers to this magazine received...

 magazine and a commentator on BBC
The British Broadcasting Corporation is a British public service broadcaster. Its headquarters is at Broadcasting House in the City of Westminster, London. It is the largest broadcaster in the world, with about 23,000 staff...

 radio and television.

Personal life

Born Elaine Cottler in Boston, Massachusetts
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is a state in the New England region of the northeastern United States of America. It is bordered by Rhode Island and Connecticut to the south, New York to the west, and Vermont and New Hampshire to the north; at its east lies the Atlantic Ocean. As of the 2010...

, Showalter pursued an academic career against the wishes of her parents. She earned a bachelor's degree
Bachelor's degree
A bachelor's degree is usually an academic degree awarded for an undergraduate course or major that generally lasts for three or four years, but can range anywhere from two to six years depending on the region of the world...

 at Bryn Mawr College
Bryn Mawr College
Bryn Mawr College is a women's liberal arts college located in Bryn Mawr, a community in Lower Merion Township, Pennsylvania, ten miles west of Philadelphia. The name "Bryn Mawr" means "big hill" in Welsh....

, a master's degree
Master's degree
A master's is an academic degree granted to individuals who have undergone study demonstrating a mastery or high-order overview of a specific field of study or area of professional practice...

 at Brandeis University
Brandeis University
Brandeis University is an American private research university with a liberal arts focus. It is located in the southwestern corner of Waltham, Massachusetts, nine miles west of Boston. The University has an enrollment of approximately 3,200 undergraduate and 2,100 graduate students. In 2011, it...

, and a Ph.D.
Doctor of Philosophy
Doctor of Philosophy, abbreviated as Ph.D., PhD, D.Phil., or DPhil , in English-speaking countries, is a postgraduate academic degree awarded by universities...

 in 1970 at the University of California, Davis
University of California, Davis
The University of California, Davis is a public teaching and research university established in 1905 and located in Davis, California, USA. Spanning over , the campus is the largest within the University of California system and third largest by enrollment...

. Her first academic appointment was at Douglass College at Rutgers University
Rutgers University
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey , is the largest institution for higher education in New Jersey, United States. It was originally chartered as Queen's College in 1766. It is the eighth-oldest college in the United States and one of the nine Colonial colleges founded before the American...

. She joined Princeton University
Princeton University
Princeton University is a private research university located in Princeton, New Jersey, United States. The school is one of the eight universities of the Ivy League, and is one of the nine Colonial Colleges founded before the American Revolution....

's faculty in 1984, and took early retirement in 2003.

Her father was in the wool business and her mother was a housewife. At age 21, Showalter was disowned by her parents for marrying outside the Jewish faith. Her husband, English Showalter, is a Yale
Yale University
Yale University is a private, Ivy League university located in New Haven, Connecticut, United States. Founded in 1701 in the Colony of Connecticut, the university is the third-oldest institution of higher education in the United States...

-educated professor of 18th century French literature
French literature of the 18th century
18th-century French literature is French literature written between 1715, the year of the death of King Louis XIV of France, and 1798, the year of the coup d’État of Bonaparte which brought the Consulate to power, concluded the French Revolution, and began the modern era of French history...

. The Showalters have two children, Michael Showalter
Michael Showalter
Michael English Showalter is an American comedian, actor, writer, and director. He is a member of the sketch comedy trio Stella. Showalter first came to recognition as a cast member on MTV's The State, which aired from 1993 to 1995...

, an actor and comedian, and Vinca Showalter LaFleur, a professional speechwriter.


Showalter is a specialist in Victorian literature
Victorian literature
Victorian literature is the literature produced during the reign of Queen Victoria . It forms a link and transition between the writers of the romantic period and the very different literature of the 20th century....

 and the Fin-de-Siecle (turn of the 19th century). Her most innovative work in this field is in madness and hysteria
Hysteria, in its colloquial use, describes unmanageable emotional excesses. People who are "hysterical" often lose self-control due to an overwhelming fear that may be caused by multiple events in one's past that involved some sort of severe conflict; the fear can be centered on a body part, or,...

 in literature, specifically in women’s writing and in the portrayal of female characters.

She is the Avalon Foundation Professor Emerita. Her academic honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship
Guggenheim Fellowship
Guggenheim Fellowships are American grants that have been awarded annually since 1925 by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation to those "who have demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts." Each year, the foundation makes...

 (1977–78) and a Rockefeller Humanities fellowship (1981–82). She is also the past-president of the Modern Language Association
Modern Language Association
The Modern Language Association of America is the principal professional association in the United States for scholars of language and literature...


Showalter's best known works are Toward a Feminist Poetics (1979), The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture (1830–1980) (1985), Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siecle (1990), Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media (1997), and Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage (2001). In 2007 Showalter was chair of the judges for the prestigious British literary award, the Man Booker International Prize
Man Booker International Prize
The Man Booker International Prize is a biennial international literary award given to a living author of any nationality for a body of work published in English or generally available in English translation....


Critical importance

Showalter's book Inventing Herself (2001), a survey of feminist icons, seems to be the culmination of a long-time interest in communicating the importance of understanding feminist tradition
History of feminism
The history of feminism involves the story of feminist movements and of feminist thinkers. Depending on time, culture and country, feminists around the world have sometimes had different causes and goals...

. Showalter’s early essays and editorial work in the late 1970s and the 1980s survey the history of the feminist tradition within the “wilderness” of literary theory
Literary theory
Literary theory in a strict sense is the systematic study of the nature of literature and of the methods for analyzing literature. However, literary scholarship since the 19th century often includes—in addition to, or even instead of literary theory in the strict sense—considerations of...

 and criticism. Working in the field of feminist literary theory and criticism, which was just emerging as a serious scholarly pursuit in universities in the 1970s, Showalter's writing reflects a conscious effort to convey the importance of mapping her discipline’s past in order to both ground it in substantive theory, and amass a knowledge base that will be able to inform a path for future feminist academic pursuit.

In Toward a Feminist Poetics Showalter traces the history of women's literature, suggesting that it can be divided into three phases:
  1. Feminine: In the Feminine phase (1840–1880), “women wrote in an effort to equal the intellectual achievements of the male culture, and internalized its assumptions about female nature” (New, 137).
  2. Feminist: The Feminist phase (1880–1920) was characterized by women’s writing that protested against male standards and values, and advocated women’s rights and values, including a demand for autonomy.
  3. Female: The Female phase (1920— ) is one of self-discovery. Showalter says, “women reject both imitation and protest—two forms of dependency—and turn instead to female experience as the source of an autonomous art, extending the feminist analysis of culture to the forms and techniques of literature” (New, 139).

Rejecting both imitation and protest, Showalter advocates approaching feminist criticism from a cultural perspective in the current Female phase, rather than from perspectives that traditionally come from an androcentric perspective like psychoanalytic and biological theories, for example. Feminists in the past have worked within these traditions by revising and criticizing female representations, or lack thereof, in the male traditions (that is, in the Feminine and Feminist phases). In her essay Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness (1981), Showalter says, "A cultural theory acknowledges that there are important differences between women as writers: class, race nationality, and history are literary determinants as significant as gender. Nonetheless, women’s culture forms a collective experience within the cultural whole, an experience that binds women writers to each other over time and space" (New, 260).

Showalter does not advocate replacing psychoanalysis
Psychoanalysis is a psychological theory developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud. Psychoanalysis has expanded, been criticized and developed in different directions, mostly by some of Freud's former students, such as Alfred Adler and Carl Gustav...

, for example, with cultural anthropology
Cultural anthropology
Cultural anthropology is a branch of anthropology focused on the study of cultural variation among humans, collecting data about the impact of global economic and political processes on local cultural realities. Anthropologists use a variety of methods, including participant observation,...

; rather, she suggests that approaching women’s writing from a cultural perspective is one among many valid perspectives that will uncover female traditions. However, cultural anthropology and social history
Social history
Social history, often called the new social history, is a branch of History that includes history of ordinary people and their strategies of coping with life. In its "golden age" it was a major growth field in the 1960s and 1970s among scholars, and still is well represented in history departments...

 are especially fruitful because they “can perhaps offer us a terminology and a diagram of women’s cultural situation” (New, 266). Showalter’s caveat is that feminist critics must use cultural analyses as ways to understand what women write, rather than to dictate what they ought to write (New, 266).

However isolationist-like Showalter’s perspective may sound at first, she does not advocate a separation of the female tradition from the male tradition. She argues that women must work both inside and outside the male tradition simultaneously (New, 264). Showalter says the most constructive approach to future feminist theory and criticism lies in a focus on nurturing a new feminine cultural perspective within a feminist tradition that at the same time exists within the male tradition, but on which it is not dependent and to which it is not answerable.


Showalter coined the term 'gynocritics' to describe literary criticism based in a feminine perspective. Probably the best description Showalter gives of gynocritics is in Toward a Feminist Poetics:
In contrast to [an] angry or loving fixation on male literature, the program of gynocritics is to construct a female framework for the analysis of women’s literature, to develop new models based on the study of female experience, rather than to adapt male models and theories. Gynocritics begins at the point when we free ourselves from the linear absolutes of male literary history, stop trying to fit women between the lines of the male tradition, and focus instead on the newly visible world of female culture. (New, 131)

This does not mean that the goal of gynocritics is to erase the differences between male and female writing; gynocritics is not “on a pilgrimage to the promised land in which gender would lose its power, in which all texts would be sexless and equal, like angels” (New, 266). Rather gynocritics aims to understand the specificity of women’s writing not as a product of sexism
Sexism, also known as gender discrimination or sex discrimination, is the application of the belief or attitude that there are characteristics implicit to one's gender that indirectly affect one's abilities in unrelated areas...

 but as a fundamental aspect of female reality.

Showalter acknowledges the difficulty of “[d]efining the unique difference of women’s writing” which she says is “a slippery and demanding task” in “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness” (New, 249). She says that gynocritics may never succeed in understanding the special differences of women’s writing, or realize a distinct female literary tradition. But, with grounding in theory and historical research, Showalter sees gynocriticism as a way to “learn something solid, enduring, and real about the relation of women to literary culture” (New, 249).She stresses heavily the need to free "ourselves from the lineal absolute of male literary history". That is going to be the point where gynocritics make a beginning.

Feminist theory and criticism

Duke-University based Toril Moi
Toril Moi
Toril Moi is James B. Duke Professor of Literature and Romance Studies at Duke University. Previously she held positions as a lecturer in French at the University of Oxford and as Director of the Center for Feminist Research at the University of Bergen, Norway...

, in her 1985 book Sexual/Textual Politics, accused Showalter of having a limited, essentialist
In philosophy, essentialism is the view that, for any specific kind of entity, there is a set of characteristics or properties all of which any entity of that kind must possess. Therefore all things can be precisely defined or described...

 view of women. Moi particularly criticized Showalter’s ideas regarding the Female phase, and its notions of a woman's singular autonomy and necessary search inward for a female identity. In a predominantly poststructuralist era that proposes that meaning is contextual and historical, and that identity is socially and linguistically
Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. Linguistics can be broadly broken into three categories or subfields of study: language form, language meaning, and language in context....

 constructed, Moi claimed that there is no fundamental female self.

According to Moi, the problem of equality in literary theory does not lie in the fact that the literary canon
Canon (fiction)
In the context of a work of fiction, the term canon denotes the material accepted as "official" in a fictional universe's fan base. It is often contrasted with, or used as the basis for, works of fan fiction, which are not considered canonical...

 is fundamentally male and unrepresentative of female tradition, rather the problem lies in the fact that a canon exists at all. Moi argues that a feminine literary canon would be no less oppressive than the male canon because it would necessarily represent a particular socio demographic class of woman; it could not possibly represent all women because female tradition is drastically different depending on class, ethnicity, social values, sexuality, etc. A female consciousness cannot exist for the same reasons. Moi objects to what she sees as an essentialist position – that is, she objects to any determination of identity based on gender. Moi’s criticism was influential as part of a larger debate between essentialist and postmodern feminist theorists at the time.

Hysteria and "modern" illnessess

Showalter's controversial take on illnesses such as dissociative identity disorder
Dissociative identity disorder
Dissociative identity disorder is a psychiatric diagnosis and describes a condition in which a person displays multiple distinct identities , each with its own pattern of perceiving and interacting with the environment....

 (formerly called multiple personality disorder), Gulf War syndrome
Gulf War syndrome
Gulf War syndrome or Gulf War illness describes a medical condition that affected veterans and civilians who were near conflicts during or downwind of chemical weapons depot demolition, after the 1991 Gulf War. A wide range of acute and chronic symptoms have included fatigue, musculoskeletal...

 and chronic fatigue syndrome
Chronic fatigue syndrome
Chronic fatigue syndrome is the most common name used to designate a significantly debilitating medical disorder or group of disorders generally defined by persistent fatigue accompanied by other specific symptoms for a minimum of six months, not due to ongoing exertion, not substantially...

 in her book Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media (1997) has angered some in the health profession and many who suffer from these illnesses. Writing in the New York Times, psychologist Carol Tavris commented that "In the absence of medical certainty, the belief that all such symptoms are psychological in origin is no improvement over the belief that none of them are." Showalter (who has no formal medical training) admits to receiving hate mail, but has not been deterred from her position that these conditions are contemporary manifestations of hysteria
Hysteria, in its colloquial use, describes unmanageable emotional excesses. People who are "hysterical" often lose self-control due to an overwhelming fear that may be caused by multiple events in one's past that involved some sort of severe conflict; the fear can be centered on a body part, or,...

. http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(05)77699-6/fulltext

Popular culture

Showalter also came up against criticism in the late 1990s for some of her writing on popular culture that appeared in magazines like People and Vogue. Deirdre English
Deirdre English
Deirdre English is the former editor of Mother Jones and author of numerous articles for national publications and television documentaries. Currently, she teaches at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, and is a faculty mentor at the Center for the Study of...

, in the American magazine The Nation, wrote:
As the poststructuralist critique of identity politics took hold over the following decade and more, it became unfashionable, in ideas and in dress, it seemed, for the avant-garde
Avant-garde means "advance guard" or "vanguard". The adjective form is used in English to refer to people or works that are experimental or innovative, particularly with respect to art, culture, and politics....

 of the female professoriate to identify with either men or women.

English quotes Showalter’s controversial 1997 Vogue article:
"From Mary Wollstonecraft
Mary Wollstonecraft
Mary Wollstonecraft was an eighteenth-century British writer, philosopher, and advocate of women's rights. During her brief career, she wrote novels, treatises, a travel narrative, a history of the French Revolution, a conduct book, and a children's book...

 to Naomi Wolf
Naomi Wolf
Naomi Wolf is an American author and political consultant. With the publication of The Beauty Myth, she became a leading spokesperson of what was later described as the third wave of the feminist movement.-Biography:...

, feminism has often taken a hard line on fashion, shopping, and the whole beauty Monty.... But for those of us sisters hiding Welcome to Your Facelift inside The Second Sex
The Second Sex
The Second Sex is one of the best-known works of the French existentialist Simone de Beauvoir. It is a work on the treatment of women throughout history and often regarded as a major work of feminist literature and the starting point of second-wave feminism. Beauvoir researched and wrote the book...

, a passion for fashion can sometimes seem a shameful secret life.... I think it's time I came out of the closet."

Showalter was reportedly severely criticized by her academic colleagues for her stance in favour of patriarchal
Patriarchy is a social system in which the role of the male as the primary authority figure is central to social organization, and where fathers hold authority over women, children, and property. It implies the institutions of male rule and privilege, and entails female subordination...

 symbols of consumer capitalism and traditional femininity
Femininity is a set of attributes, behaviors, and roles generally associated with girls and women. Though socially constructed, femininity is made up of both socially defined and biologically created factors...

. Showalter’s rejoinder was: “We needn't fall into postmodern apocalyptic despair about the futility of political action or the impossibility of theoretical correctness as a pre-condition for action” (English).

Academic teaching

Teaching Literature (2006) was widely and positively reviewed, especially in the American journal Pedagogy
Pedagogy is the study of being a teacher or the process of teaching. The term generally refers to strategies of instruction, or a style of instruction....

, which gave it three review-essays and called it "the book we wish we had in our backpacks when we started teaching." It was also harshly criticized by John Rouse in his review of the book. Rouse lambasted Showalter for what he sees as her "banal" suggestions and mocks that she describes her revelation that literature should be taught as performance, as a "discovery." Rouse nevertheless gives her credit, albeit condescendingly, for attempting to make literature "more attractive to undergraduates." Ultimately Rouse criticizes Showalter's approach to teaching literature: "the work will be flayed, filleted, and displayed as another specimen of the genre."

Summaries of major works

Showalter's Ph.D. thesis is called The Double Critical Standard: Criticism of Women Writers in England, 1845–1880 (1969) and was later turned into the book A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing (1978), which contains a lengthy and much-discussed chapter on Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf
Adeline Virginia Woolf was an English author, essayist, publisher, and writer of short stories, regarded as one of the foremost modernist literary figures of the twentieth century....


The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830–1980 (1985) discusses hysteria, which was once known as the “female malady” and according to Showalter, is called depression
Clinical depression
Major depressive disorder is a mental disorder characterized by an all-encompassing low mood accompanied by low self-esteem, and by loss of interest or pleasure in normally enjoyable activities...

 today. Showalter demonstrates how cultural ideas about proper feminine behaviour have shaped the definition and treatment of female insanity from the Victorian era
Victorian era
The Victorian era of British history was the period of Queen Victoria's reign from 20 June 1837 until her death on 22 January 1901. It was a long period of peace, prosperity, refined sensibilities and national self-confidence...

 to the present.

Sexual Anarchy: Gender at Culture at the Fin de Siecle (1990) outlines a history of the sexes and the crises, themes, and problems associated with the battle for sexual supremacy and identity.

In the 1990s, Showalter began writing for popular magazines, bringing her work further into the public sphere than it ever had been during her academic career. Showalter was the television critic for People magazine in 1996. She explains her impetus to do popular cultural work: "I've always really loved popular culture, but it wasn't something serious intellectuals were supposed to be concerned about. … I would like to be able to bring my background and my skills to subjects that do reach a wide audience" (Plett).

In Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media (1997) Showalter argues that hysteria, a medical condition traditionally seen as feminine, has persisted for centuries and is now manifesting itself in cultural phenomena in the forms of socially and medically accepted maladies. Psychological and physical effects of unhappy lives become "hysterical epidemics" when popular media saturate the public with paranoid reports and findings, essentially legitimizing, as Showalter calls them, "imaginary illnesses" (Hystories, cover). Showalter says "Hysteria is part of everyday life. It not only survives in the 1990s, but it is more contagious than in the past. Newspapers, magazines, talk shows, self-help books, and of course the Internet ensure that ideas, once planted, manifest themselves internationally as symptoms” (Plett). This view has caused Showalter to be criticized by patient's rights groups and medical practitioners, who argue that Showalter, with no formal medical training, is not qualified to make this determination.

Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage (2001) surveys feminist icons since the 18th century, situated mostly in the U.S.
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 and the United Kingdom
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

. Showalter covers the contributions of predominately intellectuals like Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a prominent American sociologist, novelist, writer of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction, and a lecturer for social reform...

 and Camille Paglia
Camille Paglia
Camille Anna Paglia , is an American author, teacher, and social critic. Paglia, a self-described dissident feminist, has been a Professor at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania since 1984...

. Noting popular media’s importance to the perception of women and feminism today, Showalter also discusses the contributions of popular personalities like Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Winfrey is an American media proprietor, talk show host, actress, producer and philanthropist. Winfrey is best known for her self-titled, multi-award-winning talk show, which has become the highest-rated program of its kind in history and was nationally syndicated from 1986 to 2011...

 and Princess Diana.

Teaching Literature (2003) is essentially a guide to teaching English literature to undergraduate students in university. Showalter covers approaches to teaching theory, preparing syllabi and talking about taboo subjects among many other practical topics. Showalter says that teaching should be taken as seriously and given as much intellectual consideration as scholarship.

Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents (2005) is a study of the Anglo-American academic novel from the 1950s to the present.

A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx (2009) makes a claim for a literary tradition of American women writers.


Papers of Elaine Showalter are held at The Women's Library at London Metropolitan University
London Metropolitan University
London Metropolitan University , located in London, England, was formed on 1 August 2002 by the amalgamation of the University of North London and the London Guildhall University . The University has campuses in the City of London and in the London Borough of Islington.The University operates its...

, ref 7ESH

External links